Then and Now: Healing in the Aftermath of Cambodian Genocide

Marisa Houlahan

The works of Thet Sambath and Kho Tararith plunge us into a world of layers and degrees, of acute loss and enduring struggle, of brewing regret and budding forgiveness. Their worlds pulse with emotions in flux, emotions that grow and change with time and distance. Both illustrate the unearthing of past actions buried beneath layers of time, memory, pain, and regret, and the process of unifying past and present to take responsibility for those actions in the hope of moving on.  Thet’s documentary Enemies of the People delves into the minds of the killers of the Cambodian genocide and seeks to help them acknowledge their actions so that they can stop hiding their pasts. Once this separation between past and present is broken down, the perpetrators can stop running from what they have done and can instead begin searching for a way to heal. In the process of bridging that separation, the subjects of Enemies of the People use distance both to disassociate and pull themselves closer to their pasts through physical space and language.  A similar idea of distance comprised of and encompassing layers is at work in Kho’s “Daughter,” which unearths a mother’s regret at leaving her child and then shifts to an intimate confession of love and loss that allows the mother to embrace her past, however painful. The protagonist of “Daughter,” like the real-life subjects of Enemies of the People, tries to run from her regret before finally accepting responsibility for and coming to terms with her actions, and in doing so peels back the layers of separation that distance her past from the present.

Although both works make use of distance and layers alternately to disassociate from the past and to unify the “then” and “now” of genocide and its aftermath, the ways in which they do so are unique and situational. In Enemies of the People, Thet preserves emotional distance between himself and his interviewees so that he can systematically peel back the layers of justification and guilt that the subjects have wrapped around themselves, and in doing so break down the separation they maintain between themselves and the past. This allows Thet slowly and methodically to uncover the past from the outside.  “Daughter” takes on a different form in that the layers of emotional distance and grief are ripped back from the inside out. The mother narrating the poem first tries to justify and deflect using passive language, then shifts abruptly and powerfully to recognition, where each step closer she takes to what she has done is heavy with ragged pain and raw confession.  From the juxtaposition of these works arise two alternate ways of bridging the distance between the past and the present and uncovering the emotions within: one a careful dissection from outside in and the other a desperate clawing from inside out. Though Thet and Kho employ different methodologies in processing the physical and emotional violence of genocide, together their works bear witness to the silences that bookend healing.  Whether it is the victim or perpetrator that must come to terms with years of regret, memory, and guilt, these works track the movement of healing from a silence of denial to one that transcends words and allows the pains of the past to be felt and ultimately released.

To understand the ways in which distance and layers work to bridge past and present within Enemies of the People and “Daughter,” it is necessary first to look at the distance, or lack thereof, maintained between a creator and the work itself. In his film, Thet emphasizes that despite the personal loss he suffered during the Khmer Rouge regime, his goal is to document why and how the genocide occurred. He says that “many Cambodians still do not understand why [the] mass killings happened,” and chooses to bear the responsibility of recording testimonies of victims and witnesses for the sake of history (Conversation).  This emotional separation that Thet maintains from the lives he records is reflected in his camerawork and the way he approaches his subjects. During particularly weighted interviews, like the first time Nuon Chea admits to the killings, the viewer sees Thet’s questioning filmed through the lens of a second camera held by Thet himself (Enemies). This creates a separation, another layer, between Thet and Chea that emphasizes Thet’s emotional distance. Interestingly, it has the effect of creating more space between the viewer and Chea, both by placing the viewer behind the lens with Thet and by constructing an intermediary visual barrier between the Chea and viewer’s perspective. Chea already appears as an inhuman figure, someone capable of casual cruelty unthinkable to most viewers, and the addition of another screen between the observer and Chea, especially at the moment when he confesses to such widespread murder, serves to separate Chea even more from the reality of the average viewer.  This extra filter between viewer and subject also emphasizes the historical work Thet is doing as he reaches into and unspools the past through his cameras. In using layers of cameras and screens, Thet also creates the effect of distance when he is filmed editing and reviewing footage from interviews. Whereas the distance created by layers of screens during interviews serves to separate Chea from both Thet and the viewer, here the multiple screens have the opposite effect. At one point in the film, four images of Chea from three different screens stare out at Thet and the viewer. This pulls the viewer in and creates the effect of being enveloped and surrounded, placed face to face with Chea. The angle of this particular shot also places the viewer in Thet’s seat in the editing room, which makes Chea’s words seem all the more immediate, and helps build an emotional connection between both the viewer and Thet and between the viewer and the project itself. In addition to pulling the audience in, the footage of Thet editing interviews reveals the moments in which the careful emotional distance Thet preserves with his subjects breaks down.  After a scene in which Thet says goodbye to his children before setting off to work on his film, Thet is shown watching footage of Chea play with the baby of one of Chea’s family members. Thet’s emotion is immediate and visible as he speaks of the pain it causes him to see parents interact with their children, as he was deprived of parents and a brother by the Khmer Rouge and now sacrifices his own family again because he feels he must record the past for future generations of families. Here the layers Thet works into his film through editing scenes serve not only to separate, but to pull the viewer in closer to Thet’s emotions.

More than simply coloring the approaches to these projects, distance and layers of separation are instrumental within the works themselves. This is particularly evident in the film scene in which Mr. Khuon reenacts a killing, though much of the scene’s impact comes from the way Thet carefully layers his film with images leading up to this point. Enemies of the People starts out moving from shot to shot of concealment: hazy images of fog blurring the landscape; stagnant, murky water; grass waving in the wind so individual blades are indistinguishable. This system of images has the effect of making the viewer hungry for more, for clarity. This technique emphasizes what is unseen and untold, and sets Thet up to clear the haze and reveal what lies below. These concealing images repeat throughout the film, but decrease in frequency to mirror the way Thet slowly and methodically unearths the hows and whys of the killings from the perpetrators he interviews. A similar setup is at work in the first fifteen lines of “Daughter,” but where Thet uses imagery, Kho uses distant, unspecific language. In the first section of “Daughter” the narrator is repeatedly acted upon. She was “ripped” from her home and blown far away, her daughter was “taken,” she was “tricked” and “had no choice” (Kho).  Everything about the mother’s language distances her from the fact that she left her daughter, and part of creating that distance comes in the form of justification. The mother repeats her identity to herself like a mantra, “I am a housemaid in Malaysia: / I am a servant,” as if trying to convince herself that what she did was right.  She does not acknowledge the choice she made to leave her daughter and tries to keep herself separate from the past by repeatedly affirming her new identity. As in Enemies of the People, these layers of deflection and justification serve only to emphasize the unsaid and draw the audience deeper into the work.

The defensive, distancing language that is so prevalent in “Daughter” surfaces also in the film, though here Khuon is distancing himself from the killings not just as a way to live with himself.  Khuon is especially reluctant to speak because anything he divulges is bared before Thet and the eyes of the world, whereas “Daughter” reads as a mother’s intimate confession to both daughter and self. Thet’s masterful phrasing in this scene allows Khuon to slowly open up and drop the layers of defense he has wrapped around himself; Thet draws Khuon outward by telling him to “just pretend… just help me… just use me as an example” (Enemies). By distancing Khuon from his responsibility for the killings and making the reenactment seem like a favor, Thet sets Khuon up for more honest, genuine interaction before Khuon even speaks.  Thet’s language of pretending also distances Thet from his own victimhood, allowing Khuon to feel he is talking to an outsider and continue telling his story. Thet’s approach of using manufactured distance allows him to bridge the very real distance that Khuon creates between himself and his actions and between the stories each man has to tell.

However, the process of reunifying past and present requires more than the acknowledgment of past wrongdoings or regrets; the subject must shift from detachment to consciously and intentionally taking responsibility. In “Daughter,” the collapse of the detachment the mother so carefully constructs in the first fifteen lines comes as a sharp transition: “I ran from you” (Kho).  It is as though all that comes before has been one long breath and here the mother is cutting off her justifications and explanations and laying the bare truth out before herself, her daughter, and the reader. This line distinguishes itself as a transition not just within the context of the poem, but visually and rhythmically as well. There are no stanzas or breaks in “Daughter,” and this line is markedly shortest, disrupting the flow of the mother’s confession. Here, the mother is not biding her time and getting comfortable with the subject as Thet allows his interviewees to do. “I ran from you” comes like ripping off a bandage — abrupt and startling, revealing the wound beneath (Kho). The pain it causes the mother to acknowledge her loss and struggle, and that of her daughter, manifests itself in the poem almost as a physical wound. This is reinforced by the body imagery of the “tears [that] cut into [her] heart” and the bodily suffering the mother experiences that is “like fire touching the flesh” (Kho). The confessional form of the poem allows it to breach the distance between disassociation and acknowledgement very abruptly, which makes the moment especially striking. Thet, on the other hand, must handle bridging that gap differently because he works face to face with real people on film, who come complete with their own sets of memories, vanities, and reservations. Thus Thet must approach his subjects delicately and non-judgmentally so that moments of acknowledgement like “I ran from you” can surface (Kho).  During Khuon’s reenactment of a killing, this moment is less distinct, but it emerges nevertheless. Between nervous, deflective laughter and smiles, Khuon admits that he feels “embarrassed to kill” Thet (Enemies), which gives the viewer a glimpse of the shame and regret that Khuon seems to feel and that Thet has worked so carefully to reveal.  Khuon will not reenact a killing using Thet, whom he has gotten to know over the course of the project, and instead uses another man. This suggests that Khuon must still preserve some distance between himself and his actions and between himself and Thet as he grapples with his own past and with Thet’s dual roles of victim and historian. Using Thet as an example would make his actions too personal and real.  It seems also to be an odd choice of words to be “embarrassed” to kill someone, rather than horrified or disturbed, as if his shame arises from being found out.  Khuon’s word choice suggests again that he is still holding some distance between himself and his actions, and that although he feels shame, he will not publicly acknowledge any deeper emotional or moral conflict.

Thet and Kho take different approaches to bridging the distance between past and present created by layers of regret, pain, and loss, but after stripping away all of these emotions, they both find the same thing at the core: silence. This surfaces repeatedly in Enemies of the People as Thet’s interviews uncover glimpses of real emotion, like the moment after Nuon Chea learns of the death of Thet’s family. Chea expresses his surprise and sorrow and then pauses, looking away from the camera with a troubled expression on his face, and sits in silence. Moments of silence also frame Khuon’s reenactment of the killing, which lets the words and images sit with the viewer for a moment and also gives a chance for those moments of vulnerability to break through, when the human being behind the role of victim or victimizer is revealed.  For Kho, however, these moments do not need to be earned the way Thet must earn the confidence of his subjects. Because of the intimate nature of “Daughter” and the raw pain it expresses, silence comes organically at the close of the poem.  The mother has exerted an enormous emotional effort to claw her way out of the layers of justification and guilt and pain that separate her from acknowledging her abandonment of her daughter. After she has poured out “every word [she] knows to quiet the despair” (Kho), she has left only silence and the dull, aching physical pain of loss. In the silence the days tick by, her heart pounds, and suffering leaves indelible marks in its passing, “like fire touching the flesh” (Kho).  Both works arrive ultimately at silence, be it one of remembrance, realized humanity, exhaustion, or catharsis. That they do so despite taking such difference paths suggests that after all is said and done, no matter who peels back the layers or how they do so, there are still emotions that cannot be expressed by any words. Once the separation of past and present has been broken down, there remains a gulf between words and reality, what can be spoken and what is.

Kho deepens and complicates this idea of something beyond words in his 2012 poem “Sugar Cane,” in which he paints a picture of a village stripped of its identity by the Khmer Rouge and explores how those people cope with their physical and emotional displacement. Here, the collective voice of the village professes, “the more we appeal, the more we’re hurt” (Kho, “Sugar Cane”). This cycle of appeal and violence suggests that although there is enormous value in acknowledging something out loud as a means of overcoming it, at some point this stops helping and begins to hold one back from moving on. After all the loss and regret and pain are spoken and past and present are rejoined, moving forward requires that one stop dwelling on the past. One must find the delicate balance between remembering so that such a thing never happens again, and letting go enough to find peace. By exploring distance both in relation to and within their works, Thet and Kho are in their own ways able to peel away the layers of emotion surrounding the Cambodian genocide to arrive at the silence that is left at the core of the aftermath, after the past has been acknowledged and all that can be said has been spoken. Together these works suggest that perhaps it is reflecting and sitting in those moments of silence, after one has “run out of language” (Kho, “Sugar Cane”), that time can do its work and that one begins to heal. 

Works Cited

Enemies of the People. Dir. Sambath Thet and Rob Lemkin. Old Street Films, 2010. DVD.

Thet, Sambath. Conversation with Students. Harvard College. Lamont Library, Cambridge. 23 Oct., 2013.

Kho, Tararith. “Daughter.” Trans. Aisha Down. 

—. “Sugar Cane.” Trans. Aisha Down.